TROZAS by B. Traven, translated from the German by Hugh Young (Ivan R. Dee: $22.50; 272 pp.) The mysterious B. Traven, long dead, long unread, opens another vein; incenses us; makes us cry. An itinerant American of rare gifts, a seaman/journalist/actor who grew up in Germany, Traven settled in Mexico in the 1920s, where he observed a form of bondage worse, in its way, than that of the American South. "Trozas" (mahogany tree trunks), one of Traven's "Jungle Series" just being published in English, unfolds in Chiapas--the southern province whose recent rebellion has come 100 years late. Exploited, manipulated, abused, eternally in debt, naked and exhausted, generations of Traven's peons labor their lives away in the fetid jungle hacking at hack-proof trees, hauling two-ton trunks through tropical swamps that are the natural habitat of reptiles, insects and pumas, and the unnatural habitat of vicious foremen with bull whips.
Worse, there is no way out. Traven traces a typical path, that of Vicente, only 10, whose father has died. It is only "honorable" to assume the father's debts of 92 pesos. A priest demands 30 pesos more for invoking God's blessings on the corpse. A "labor contractor" pays the priest in return for Vicente's X on a pact promising to repay the agent, with interest. Vicente owes another 25 pesos "recruitment commission," another 25 "tax." He must buy stripped-down essentials--a blanket, a tiny cooking tin--at the company store, marked up 1,000%. He is paid a few centavos a week. "Everyone," writes Traven, "needed between 6,000 and 8,000 years to be absolved of his debt through his work." This is a harsh, brutal novel, gashed with satire, Conradian in scope. And bleak. When a comrade dies, the laborers cannot believe he will be received in heaven as an equal. Maybe a new shirt and bits of dried meat in his tortilla, but he'll be hauling trozas there as well--"For Eulalio had left without paying his debts."